Turkish police used tear gas to break up a weekly protest against forced disappearances in the 1980s and 90s, and arrested 50 people, including a woman in her 80s.
The sit-in was scheduled to be the 700th demonstration in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu district by the group called the Saturday Mothers, which has met every Saturday since 1995, apart from a 10-year period when it was banned from 1999 to 2009.
Turkish authorities said the outlawed the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought an armed campaign for Kurdish self-rule since 1984, was behind the protest.
“Should we turn a blind eye to the exploitation of motherhood by a terrorist organisation?”
Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu asked.
Tens of thousands have been killed in fighting between security forces and the PKK in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast. But, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, thousands more disappeared in what has been called a dirty war by state security forces acting in conjunction with far-right assassins and Islamist groups that tortured and killed their victims. Security forces also burnt down hundreds of villages in a scorched earth policy against the PKK.
The Saturday Mothers began their weekly vigil at the height of the fighting, silently holding up pictures of their sons and daughters who they said had disappeared in police custody.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then prime minister, met the Saturday Mothers in 2011 and pledged his support. At the time, the government was seeking ways to peacefully end the bitter fighting with the PKK. But a two-year ceasefire that was eventually concluded broke down in 2015 and fighting has since erupted again, though most recently on a smaller scale.
Turkish journalist and Islamist writer Abdurrahman Dilipak, among a group of intellectuals who came to show their support at the 700th Saturday Mothers protest, told Ahval that the gathering is the "longest-running struggle for rights in our country that has not resorted to violence".
Journalist and writer Ümit Kıvanç told Ahval in an interview that the Saturday Mothers group was a source of "hope for people such as mothers, fathers, spouses, children, and other relatives who haven't given up looking for people that the state has made disappear".
"It's a shame for this country that the community we call the Saturday Mothers has to gather in this square every week to search for their missing loved ones,” said Kıvanç. “That people continue their lives as if nothing has happened in the wake of this great source of shame as well as the people who walk past these mothers … without knowing their story or even caring to learn, is a disappointing reflection on humanity.”
Academic and writer Murat Belge also commented to Ahval and said the 700th meeting was a “serious show of determination”.
“At the same time, this may also signal that actions taken have not yet been effective. The folder of incidents classified as unsolved murders is exceedingly full. Even today, can we safely safe that such bad days have happened, but now that period has come to an end? We must wait until the mothers here can say that the case is closed,” Belge said.
Author Fikret Başkaya is another prominent public figure spoke to Ahval and called the Saturday Mothers a source of pride.
"This is a regime that regards different ideas as treacherous and the opposition as enemies,” he said.
When the state commits murder, Başkaya said, the case is classified either as an unsolved murder, or as missing in custody, a term he took issue with. “The contradiction is in the phrase itself, because those in custody don't go missing. Did they disappear or evaporate in front of your eyes?” he asked.
Başkaya said the government’s motto is “I kill, therefore I am.”